Queering Up Your Games: The How and Why
- 24 May 2019
- Nick Jones
I’m going to take a sharp left turn this week from talking the mechanics of narrative design. Instead, we’re going to look at something that aligns more with (and I hate this term) “social justice” issues.
Something I’ve grappled with a lot in my work (from OrbusVR, to Path of Exile, to my own IP, The Ghouler) is that of representation in video games. Primarily LGBTQI representations as well as the treatment of PoC (People of Colour) and non-imperial cultures. Although things are starting to change and we are seeing more and more "queer" themed games, very few are reaching the mainstream. Meanwhile AAA games try the best they can to avoid the topic, and even games that do "go there" (such as my favourite game of 2018 Ubisoft’s homoerotic masterpiece Assassins Creed: Odyssey) tend to bugger it up further down the track (Again: Assassins Creed: Odyssey - potentially destroyed player character sexuality in their controversial DLC: Legacy of the First Blade). Here's hoping The Last of Us 2 does us proud! Regardless, this is still very much a topic that needs to be discussed. Bear with me for a moment as we establish some facts and statistics around this issue.
What’s the Issue?
In her seminal essay, Putting the Gay in Games, Adrienne Shaw gives us several statistics about the video game industry that are somewhat alarming. She writes:
“Statistically, the video game industry is fairly homogeneous. According to data from IGDA’s 2005 survey of workforce diversity […] the vast majority (91%) of respondents identify as heterosexual, 5.1% as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and 3.2% declined to answer. Males accounted for 89.1% of those surveyed and 1.5% of all respondents identify as transgendered.” (Shaw, 2009, p.234)
With over 90% of industry workers identifying as heterosexual and 89% of those surveyed identifying as male, it’s no wonder why we have such a problem in this industry with lack of representation in content. Between the lack of LGBTQI characters in AAA studio games, and the fetishization of women with completely unrealistic battle armour found in many fantasy titles, it becomes pretty clear why so many outside this field would be inclined to view video games as the realm of pimply fourteen-year-old boys.
Moving forward, more recent statistics, coming from 2017’s survey show us not much has changed in twelve years regarding representation of LGBTQI and PoC within the industry.
“Survey respondents were predominately male (74%). Only 21% identified as female, 2% identified as male to female transgender and fewer than 1% identified as female to male transgender. An additional 2% selected ‘Other’ as a response […] The majority identified as white/Caucasian/European at 68% […] Regarding sexual orientation, 81% of respondents identified as heterosexual, 5% as homosexual, 11% as bisexual and 3% as other.” (IGDA, 2017, p. 11-12)
Interestingly however, there does appear to be a desire in the industry for more diversity. 81% of respondents for the same survey said that they felt diversity in the workplace was either very or somewhat important to them, which was the highest percentage in the history of the Developers Satisfaction Survey (DSS). The survey also found that having diversity within the actual game content (i.e. characters, storylines etc.) was also important with 85% of respondents marking that they felt it to be either somewhat important or very important to the games industry (IGDA, 2017, p. 11-12)
Comparing this to the same survey held between 2014-2014, 50% of respondents believed diversity in game content to be ‘very important’ (IGDA, 2016, p. 22-37), though a note was made that:
“[…] diversity in the workplace was the category deemed important least often compared to diversity in the industry and diversity in the game content. This may suggest that in an abstract sense, video game developers recognize the need for diversity in the industry and the cultural texts that circulate as a result of their work (e.g. games and related commentary). However, they seem less likely to perceive negative implications to themselves or their products, for instance, the cultural content of games – as a result of a homogenous team in their workplaces.” (IGDA, 2016, p. 22)
In short, what this tells us is that there is a desire for change, though not necessarily an understanding of the steps required to make that change, as well as a danger of stagnation, in that developers could believe change to have already occurred without it indeed doing so.
Girl Ghettos and Gay Gamers
Phewph, now that all those stats are out of the way, let’s focus specifically on LGBTQI representation for a moment. We’ll return briefly to Adrienne Shaw’s article as she makes an important point around the danger game developers face in an attempt to create diversity in their content. Speaking on the industry’s attempt to create games for a female market, she writes:
“Recognizing both the social and economic importance of targeting female gamers, some companies have attempted to court the “girl gamer” market. Market research by companies such as Purple Moon, sought to establish essential qualities of the “girl games market” by looking at how boys and girls play outside of gaming (Gorriz & Medina, 2000, p. 47) Significantly, they did not look at what girls who were already gamers did or did not enjoy but rather were targeting the nongaming girl market. According to Gansmo et al. (2003), when female players are discussed by designers, generally a very traditional feminine stereotype is evoked, which translates into game designs built around social relations, romance, emotions and roleplaying […] Creating a subgenre of games that appeals to stereotypes of gendered play habits resulted in “ghettoization” or girl games…” (Shaw, 2009, p. 233) Emphasis added.
So I think we can all agree that that’s a pretty bullshit sexist mistake on the part of developers. And yet, we’re in danger of making this mistake again with LGBTQI representation. We could see, as Shaw puts it, a “Ghettoization” of gay games as well. In fact, later in her essay, she provides an example in which Sony took out an advert in the gay magazine Attitude, to promote their new Singstar game. The advert used half-naked muscular firemen with the intention of selling the game to gay men. Shaw notes that this is the same failed approach taken to advertise games for girls, in that it attempts to appeal to homosexual gamers as gay men instead of as people who enjoy playing video games (Shaw, 2009, p. 238)
The fundamental error being made here, is assuming a connection (in the case of girl games) between female gamers and traditional femininity, and (in the case of gay games) a connection between queer gamers and the flamboyant, highly sexualized stereotypes of gay culture – something that while existing in some cases, does not define every queer person, and certainly has nothing to do with playing or enjoying video games.
Orcs and Issues of “Whiteness”
Lastly, in terms of representation of PoC in video games, let’s talk about issues of whiteness in the fantasy genre. In her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness Helen Young writes about the phenomenon of Orcs in their relation to racial issues:
“Orcs in Fantasy came into existence through Tolkien’s imagination and have been transplanted into countless worlds outside Middle-Earth. In Middle-Earth they are a monstrous Other, constructed through racial discourses. They are: somatically different to the White Self of the fellowship; part of a millennium old Western cultural discourse that Others the East and its people; and the embodiment of racial logics and stereotypes, and the perceived threat of miscegenation. They are the prototypes for the massed armies of evil’s foot-soldiers which swarm the worlds of High Fantasy under different names.” (Young, 2016, p. 89)
Stay with me, I know this is a lot to take in…
Young goes on to consider how humans and other humanoid creatures such as dwarves and elves are coded White, explaining that alternatively, Orcs are coded to be non-specifically non-White, and their development often incorporates discourses associated specifically with Black culture and/or Native American culture or other indigenous backgrounds. Young also considers how Orcs are made to be “other” through their skin colour (typically green, brown or black), extreme aggression, irrationality, and having a primitive disorganized culture, or a homeland which lies outside the borders of civilization (Young, 2016, p. 89).
So while Young is speaking specifically about the Orc as a creature, we can see that this same dangerous approach can be easily used when representing PoC (and LGBTQI characters for that matter) in fantasy, regardless of what species they might be.
How To Write Queer Characters and Why
As someone who identifies as gay and a Narrative designer working in the industry, I’ve been publicly outspoken about my thoughts around representation in games. Back in 2017, I was interviewed by a website which monitors queer culture and gaming, and was asked why I thought it was important that queer audiences are able to see themselves represented in the games they play, and in the developers who make the games they see. The interviewer also inquired as to what I felt could be done to improve the industry for queer audiences and developers.
It’s important for queer audiences (especially younger queer audiences) to see themselves represented in games and media in general because it instills a sense of confidence, it creates a normality around being queer and it can be encouraging to see a heroic representation of yourself in a fictional context. It’s also important in our representation that we show queer characters as being complex, multifaceted messes of both good and bad morals, because queer people are just like regular people, and people are – let’s be honest – hot complicated messes!
The reason I bring this up is because this is the philosophy that I try to approach many of my projects with. I don’t want to create a “gay game” as we referenced earlier, rather, I’m interested in creating games for everyone that just so happen to have queer characters (both player and NPCs). I also don’t want to create games that just so happen to have queer characters doing queer or sexualized things, rather, I’m interested in characters doing “people things” while incidentally being gay.
Two of the central characters in the original release of OrbusVR are Lord Oscar Hulthine and Lord Markos Rῠnval. They are interesting characters because I wrote them both as gay AND heroic Knights. Making Markos dark-skinned also allowed me to explore post-colonial thoughts in regards to his origin from a colonialized country.
When I was a kid, I read a novel by John Connolly called The Book of Lost Things. In it, the protagonist, a young boy, befriends a Knight named Roland, who is searching for a man named Raphael, whom he has had an intense loving relationship with and now believes to be dead. Though Connolly never explicitly states Roland to be gay, as a young closeted teenager, I felt a huge sense of inspiration in reading about Roland and Raphael simply because Roland was so chivalrous and heroic – I’d never seen a gay character represented like that before.
Looking into the book while writing this, I found that Connolly didn’t actually intend to write Roland as gay, however he does say: “I didn’t (write him gay) but if you want to read him that way, then that’s fine… …when I was writing the character of Roland, I left all such matters deliberately ambiguous.” (Connolly, 2007)
This is pretty bizarre to me because I remember the character as vividly being gay. And although I don’t approach my characters with quite that much ambiguity, this is what I mean by writing characters that are doing “people things” who just so happen to be gay. In OrbusVR, Oscar and Markos were directly inspired by what I read out of the relationship between Roland and Raphael.
Unlike Connolly, I want at least a few of my characters to be for certain gay (or anything on the LGBTQI spectrum). I don’t want to flaunt this in the faces of players, but I also don’t want to relegate these characters so far into the background that it isn’t noticeable.
My primary method of doing this is to gradually layer queer undertones into dialogue. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Case Study: OrbusVR
“It’s you. The thief. You thought you were quiet out there in the Lowland woods, but I have the eyes of a hawk. I saw you disappear into the undergrowth with my crest […] I took you for a simple villager, a starving peasant who thought they could sell such a treasure so as to fill their hungry belly. Who could’ve known you’d rat me out to the Order? It appears I underestimated your desire to please the Order. I will not make that mistake a second time […] This indiscretion, this failure won’t deter me. I remain a loyal soldier. A warrior dedicated to the honor of the Knights of Patreayl! My heart beats in time to the thud of our shields against the skulls of our enemies, and my soul, my soul holds true, enraptured by my fearless leader, Markos of Rῠnval!” (Jones, 2017)
In this initial conversation with Oscar, he reveals his allegiance, and ties it specifically to Markos of Rŭneval, his lover, however without directly implying lover. Here, I am establishing something more along the lines of what was common in Chivalric literature throughout antiquity -the concept of heroic friendships, such as Johnathon and David in the Bible, Achilles and Patroclus, Damon and Pythias, Oresetes and Pylades in Greek mythology and literature.
After seeing Oscar captured and shipped off to Guild City for his execution, the player is asked to attend to his final rights, which sparks our second conversation with the Knight:
“Ha! My little defeater! I didn’t expect to see you in such a place as this… Ah, and is that an Enforcer cloak? So now I understand. Ambition was your motivation, and status your reward […] All six of my brothers once wore the crest you wear now… Oh, they’ve long since been promoted and killed on far off battlefields. Even I did a brief stint working the same job as you and them. I always wanted to be an academic, but my father wouldn’t stand for it. He sent me to this city… in a way, it was his own undoing. It was through the Order that I discovered the truth, met Markos, and… well… a story for another time perhaps.” (Jones, 2017)
Here, I am teasing a little more out of Oscar with his trailing off into backstory. But when we reach Oscar’s execution, that’s when the truth finally comes out, bold and proud:
“I stand here, due to die. I am convicted not because of the crimes I have committed, but rather, because I stood for freedom! Freedom in the face of a tyrannical Order… and a desolate goddess! If I am to die, then as my last words, I declare my loyalty one final time to the Patreayl Knighthood, they alone stand to curb the tide of this corruption… Father, I am sorry for what I did to you. And to Sir Markos, I declare my undying loyalty, before the eyes of men and gods. I shall serve thee in the next life, if ever I am given the chance… I love you. Executioner, do you worst!” (Jones, 2017)
This is very much the approach I have taken for most of the game in terms of LGBTQI representation. While maintaining queer characters front and centre, dropping information about their queerness has been done via subtle progressions of dialogue, or through visual cues, as is the case with Kreyen, the genderfluid FTM Obnobi Bedouin that players encounter further into the game, who wears a binder, and shaves her head.
Case Study: Lyra: The Traitor of Lyngrave
Perhaps one of my most favorite projects to have worked on in recent years was a proof-of-concept demo for the UK studio MonteBearo. Upon taking the job, I was told it was Game of Thrones with animals, and encouraged to add in LGBTQI themes and characters.
Looking at some samples of scenes below, you can once again see how I’ve subtly developed the sexuality of perhaps one of my all-time favourite characters – Donoven the Rabbit:
You stupid Hare! You nearly got us killed just then!
My apologies, Sargent. I can make it up to you later, but for now, you Captain Oakmont and I, we need to get someplace safe.
How do you know our names?
My… friend… was Sebastian Howlyn. He made certain I knew the names of all the best soldiers under our command.
I heard what happened to him. I’m… I’m sorry.
Yes, well, I would like to ask you a few questions…
Eee! What shall you ask me? And what shall I answer? Perhaps you wish to know who the cutest girls are in town?
Or is it cute boys that are more your thing?
It is isn’t it! Come now Donoven, no need to be ashamed, I’m not going to tell…
I’m not ashamed! How could you tell? Argh, no, that’s besides the point. I wanted to ask you a question… about the Bannered Arches!
You… you’ve killed us. So what? It doesn’t matter. We’ll still win this war.
It’s people like you… people like you that slaughtered my… murdered Sebastian!
Oh poor you. This isn’t a world for cowards and pillow biters… It’s for the violent. And the violent take it by force!
To sum up…
Although the games industry recognizes the need for minority representation in both the games it produces and the workplaces they are produced within, we still have a long way to go and will only be able to achieve this through continually being challenged to push further with who we employ, the kinds of stories we tell and the types of characters we develop.
It is important within the creation of such narratives, not to appeal to minorities based on stereotypes and generalizations, as this will create a kind of “ghettoization” of games, as seen in the marketing of “girl games,” in which stereotypes about women were used to define gameplay and story elements, creating something that was not only insufficient to describe the female gaming community, but that was also offensive in general to the female gender.
The focus instead needs to be on developing strong, unique and interesting characters who’s minority aspects (be they LGBTQ or PoC) are not necessarily front and centre of the narrative, but rather aspects of a multifaceted personality and/or cultural identity. This will not only appeal to gamers who happen to be minorities, but it will also a) appeal to the majority who have proven in recent years to have a hunger for these kinds of stories, b) create greater awareness, and c) inspire younger generations through seeing heroic versions of themselves displayed in the media that they consume.
Connolly, J. (2007, January 28). On the nature of roland, and matters chivalric. Retrieved from http://johnconnollybooks.blogspot.co.nz/2007/01/on-nature-of-roland-and-matters.html
IGDA. (2016). Developer satisfaction survey 2014 & 2015. Retrieved from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/collection/CB31CE86-F8EE-4AE3-B46A-148490336605/IGDA_DSS14-15_DiversityReport_Aug2016_Final.pdf
IGDA. (2017). Developer satisfaction survey 2017. Retrieved from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/2017_DSS_/!IGDA_DSS_2017_SummaryReport.pdf
Jones, N. (Screenwriter). (2017). OrbusVR [Video Game]. United States: Ad Alternum.
Jones, N. (Screenwriter). (2018). Lyra: The traitor of Lyngrave [Video Games]. United Kingdom: MonteBearo.
Shaw, A. (2009). Putting the gay in games. Games and Culture, 4(3), 234. doi:10.1177/1555412009339729
YOUNG, H. E. (2018). Orcs and otherness. In Race and popular fantasy literature: Habits of whiteness (p. 89). S.l., NY: ROUTLEDGE.